An X2 Metrobus picks up passengers on H Street in 2021.
The D.C. Council wants to make WMATA bus service fare-free in the District next year. If approved, D.C. would become one of the largest and most prominent cities in the country to make the bus free at the fare box.
Metro for D.C. bill creator and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, as well as chair Phil Mendelson, say the free service will use $32 million, they said at a press conference on Thursday. Anyone boarding a bus at one of D.C.'s 10,000 bus stops could get on free instead of paying the $2 fare, even if their trip ends in Virginia or Maryland. The bill also includes money to increase bus service in the District, adding $10 million for service improvements in under-served areas and creating 24-hour service on a dozen of the city's busiest bus lines, which could be a boon for late-night workers and nightlife-goers. The night owl routes include 32, 33, 52, 70, 90, 92, A6/A8, H4, S2, V2, W4, and X2 and would cost about $8.5 million.
The money would come from setting aside excess revenue above predictions. Often, the District's chief financial officer sets a conservative tax revenue prediction and later a windfall of money flows in. Mendelson said the free bus fares would be permanent. It's unclear what would happen in years where revenue fails to meet expectations.
The bill is set to go before the Committee of the Whole and the full council on Tuesday and is largely expected to pass given the 10 co-sponsors.
"This is a big deal," Chairman Mendelson said. "We'll be the first major city in the United States to provide free bus service.
"This will be a game changer for bus users – reliable schedules and faster boarding. There's no question it will encourage more folks to use public transit, which means numerous benefits, from reducing congestion to improving the environment to stabilizing WMATA."
Allen said free fares have the added benefits of speedier service since riders could board through the front and back doors and drivers wouldn't have to wait for passengers to fiddle with a fussy SmarTrip card or count exact cash.
"Making the bus fare free for all of D.C. is the type of transformational change that we can lead – with a focus on equity and economic recovery," Allen said. "It'll make a difference in keeping buses moving faster on our streets and in the monthly budgets of thousands of DC families."
The free-bus program is a change from previous iterations of the bill, which called for giving every D.C. resident a $100 Metro fare credit each month for bus, rail, or any other transit agency that accepts SmarTrip. That idea is still in the works but would be funded later, potentially as early as Oct. 2024 if money is available. Mendelson and Allen said doing free bus service first is a cheaper solution and a lower barrier to entry. A $100 subsidy would require card registration, but with free buses "it shows up and you get on," Mendelson said.
Metro bus customers are often the most transit-dependent riders. Half of Metrobus customers are low-income, making $30,000 or less, and 84% of bus riders are people of color. They are also more likely to not have a car or live near a Metrorail stop, according to Metro demographic surveys. According to the D.C. budget office, 84% of bus riders in D.C. are residents, compared with 44% of rail riders who board in D.C.
In a statement, Metro officials said they look forward to working with the Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser as the legislation moves forward.
"We appreciate the DC Council's leadership and commitment to making transit more accessible for our customers. These are big, bold concepts that will encourage ridership throughout the region," the statement said.
But at a Greater Washington Partnership transportation panel last month, WMATA General Manager Randy Clarke said he wants the fare system and other policies to be consistent and easy to understand for Metro and other bus agencies in the region.
"We all should be working towards the same policy framework," Clarke said, noting that it could be confusing to have all-door boarding and different fare structures for each jurisdiction.
"If we're looking at low-income fare programs, we should be looking at the same thing. (For Kids Ride Free) programs, we should be looking at the same thing."
Metro is examining its overall fare structure as ridership has drastically changed since the pandemic.
The program may also have to undergo a Title VI equity analysis, which is required when fare or service changes are implemented. The analysis ensures that no one is negatively harmed by the changes, but it's unclear what it would mean for D.C.'s proposal.
Mendelson said the equity issue was brought up during talks with WMATA but isn't too worried about it since few Metrobus routes cross jurisdictions.
"Silver Spring residents can just walk a few blocks (if they want free fares) or move to D.C.," Mendelson quipped. "I don't see any way to slice and dice what we're doing and see anything but an equity benefit."
Allen said he hopes the District's move will entice other jurisdictions to follow suit.
Several other cities have gone fare-free on buses including Kansas City, which did so in 2019, and Albuquerque, which is in the middle of a year-long fare-free pilot. Locally, Alexandria's DASH bus has been free since late last year. Mayor Muriel Bowser wanted to make the District-run Circulator buses free in 2019 but met resistance from the Council, which said the routes served more tourists than residents. Mendelson said that could be fare-free in the future, too, but wasn't included in this proposal. The Circulator costs $1.
The news was largely heralded by D.C. residents and organizations. ATU Local 689, Metro's union, said the bill is a huge step forward for the region and that it would help get more people on buses. Ché Ruddell-Tabisola of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington said it would be a much cheaper option than ride-hailing for cooks and servers that work late at night, and an added incentive for diners to come downtown for restaurants.
"It's a net benefit all around," he said.
Tracy Hadden Loh, one of D.C.'s representatives on WMATA's board, attended the presser and lauded the bill. She said that fare policy would ideally be adopted regionally, but she's not too worried about regional rides being confused. If there's a lid on top of the fare box, and all the doors open, when the bus pulls up "that sends a pretty clear message," she said.
"Everyone who struggled to find exact change... everyone who only speaks Korean or German and isn't sure how to pay for the bus, those days (will be) gone," she said. "(This bill) says 'you are welcome here in the District, and you can get where you need to go.'
"That kind of hospitality and that kind of freedom to move is so exciting."
This story originally appeared on DCist.com.